Ketchup or Milestone

Bicycles have potentially very accurate speedometers. They measure distances to an accuracy of usually ten meters and they do this by counting the rotations of the front wheel. Now we can go into physics and see if the front wheel slips significantly, but I would not expect that to be relevant. What is a bit relevant is how much air there is in the tire. But bicycle tires usually take pressures between 4 and 6 bars and using this ensures that the resistance is lowest, the tire lasts longer and of course the measurement is more accurate. Only for cycling offroad and especially on snow or sand, lower pressures might be helpful.

Now usually the circumference of the front wheel can be configured to an accuracy of one millimeter. For this there are two methods and each method has its fans, who say that it is totally impossible to use the other method.

The milestone method, or more accurately the kilometer stone method, because we should of course use the metric system by default in an international context, works like this: The wheel circumference is roughly estimated and configured. Now we cycle long distances on roads with kilometer stones. This is not the case in every country and on every road, but in some countries national highways and even regional highways have it. Germany used to have it in the past, but they moved to a system that numbers sections and measures only within the section, which is useless for this purpose. Sweden and Switzerland do not have it. So it requires makeing use of the kilometer stones in a country that has them. Distances on road signs are very inaccurate in most countries, so they are absolutely useless for this purpose and no better than an estimation of the circumference. So now traveling 10 or better 20 kilometers on a road without steep slopes and without strong head wind allows to see the deviation and adjust the circumference appropriately. Repeating this a few times will yield the best result.

The other method is called ketchup method. It is easy. One spot on the wheel is marked with a lot of ketchup. Then it is carefully walked on a straight line for a few meters meters and the distance between the ketchup spots is measured.

Now what is the difference between the two methods?

Cyclists do not exactly follow a straight line, but go a little bit of zik-zak. This becomes more with head wind or slopes, but usually it is a value that is individual for the cyclist. So going from town A to town B, which is 100 kilometers, will yield (almost) exactly 100 kilometers with the speedometer configured by the kilometer stone method. But it will yield a bit more when configured by the ketchup method.

Both values have their relevance. The ketchup kilometers are the distance that was really traveled in the exact line. And the milestone kilometers are the distance that has been achieved in terms of the usefulness as a means of transport. The zik-zak is just a tiny inevitable inefficiency that does not bring us anywhere.

Now there are people who insist that one of the two methods is superior. And people who just do not care to measure to that accuracy.

But we can learn something from this for IT solutions. Often we have the choice, which information to show to the user. Quite often the ketchup value is chosen, which is a technical internal value, that is the most correct by some technical point of view. But it is good to think twice which value really matters for the user. And it is usually worth to go through a lot more effort and present that „milestone value“ and leave the „ketchup value“ for internal use and maybe advanced detail GUIs that show both values.

I do not care how you configure your bicycle speedometer, but I prefer the milestone method myself. But for user interfaces of software we should all think a bit and understand, what is the equivalent of ketchup and milestone method. At least if there is a significant difference, we should prefer milestone and make more useful user interfaces instead of „correct“ ones in some technical way that is irrelevant to the user.

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